Saturday, 8 July 2017

Days 183 – 189

Day 183

2 July 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 6 (1904)
I've always been a little wary of terms like 'visionary' being bandied about when discussing composers. Far too often, events that occurred after a work was written have been retrospectively associated with the piece, with the implication that the composer had somehow anticipated them in their work. All stuff and nonsense, obviously, but there is, to be fair to the tin-foil hat wearers, seemingly something in the assertion when it comes to Gustav's Mahler's sixth symphony. Often titled as his 'Tragic' symphony, although not, as if to accentuate the earlier point, by Mahler himself, this is an almost unrelentingly sombre piece. And yet it was written at a time when Mahler, on the face of it, ought to have been at his happiest. He had married Alma Schindler the year before starting work on it, his second child was born during its composition, and he held the highly prestigious post of director of the Vienna Court Opera.

The one ray of sunshine in the work is the second subject of the first movement, which Mahler stated represented Alma. And while that soaring melody provides an element of light in an otherwise dark work, there is nothing but utter despair about the final movement. It runs to almost half-an-hour in length and is famous for a number of hammer blows (literally – they are marked in the score as "hammer") that shatter any gathering positivity in the music. There were originally three such blows, although Mahler later edited out the third one. The view among conductors seems to be divided over its reinstatement, with some recordings going against Mahler's wishes and putting it back in. There is also, as it happens, some dispute over the ordering of the inner movements. Mahler again having had second thoughts after some early performances, eventually deciding the Andante should come second. The greater enigma though surrounds the meaning of the hammer blows, and this is where things start to get spooky. Within a year of the symphony's completion, Mahler's eldest daughter died, he was forced to resign his post at the Vienna Court Opera, and he was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition from which he would die in 1911. Three hammer blows. Coincidence maybe, but all grist to mill for the Mahler-as-visionary believers. When I was acquiring all of Mahler's symphonies on LP back in my youth, this was the one I bought last for some reason. It is thus the one I know least well, and it doesn't grab as much attention as the fifth or the so-called 'Symphony of a Thousand' (No. 8). It is a punishing journey and unlike his earlier symphonies this tunnel only ends with a brick wall. I can't think of many other pieces that hollow out one's soul in quite the way that this does.

Day 184

3 July 2017: Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 1, 'Music on Open Strings' (1973)
When I scheduled Gloria Coates's fourth symphony into my listening scheduled earlier in the year (see Day 67), it was the only work of hers I intended to feature at that stage. However, I loved it so much that I've found room to squeeze in another couple. Coates wrote her first symphony at the age of 35, and four years after she'd moved from her native Wisconsin to Munich. This is arguably her best-known work, and one that helped establish her reputation in Europe.

The symphony is written for string orchestra and, as the title implies, much of the work is played on open strings, unusually tuned to provide a wider range of notes. It is a similar principle to that employed by Louis Andriessen in his Symphony for open strings, which he composed five years later (see Day 9). The difference here is that Coates punctuates the music with her trademark glissandi and various percussive techniques. The most striking feature of the third and final movement is a scordatura technique, in which the players retune their instruments in performance back to standard tuning. I discovered when reading about Coates recently that she formed a connection with the post-war Polish avant garde school (which regular readers might recall was the subject of my music degree dissertation), and in particular Penderecki and Lutosławski. In fact, this symphony was first performed at the 1978 Warsaw Autumn Festival. That might explain why her music seems to have triggered something within me.

Day 185

4 July 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 92, 'Oxford' (1789)
So many of the symphonies I've listened to this year are also known by a name. Some were provided by the composer, but many weren't and in some cases the nickname isn't terribly helpful. In this case, Symphony No. 92 was one of three Josef Haydn wrote when he was living in Vienna, to a commission from the French Count d'Ogny, for performance in Paris. So naturally it ended being called the 'Oxford' symphony! It acquired the name because, two years later, Haydn supposedly conducted it at a ceremony at Oxford University at which he was awarded an honorary doctorate. Again though, no one seems certain that this was the actual symphony he conducted at the ceremony.

In essence, all the name does is help identify this among the 104 (or more) that he wrote. It's a very fine work, with a slow introduction that is truly exquisite, from which emerges a trademark sonata form first movement where it is easy to detect the features that Beethoven would use in his early symphonies. The Adagio cantabile slow movement features a lovely theme that is at times hesitant, as if it were an aria from an unwritten opera. There are a few musical jokes in the light-hearted scherzo, and a brisk finale rounds off proceedings on a suitable high.

Day 186

5 July 2017: Saint-Saëns – Symphony in F, 'Urbs Roma' (1856)
Camille Saint-Saëns' symphonic output is, shall we say, patchy. There are three numbered symphonies, of which the third – his 'Organ Symphony' – is widely considered to be one of the greatest ever written. There are also two un-numbered symphonies, the first having been written when he was 15 and was scarcely more than a style-composition exercise. This is the other un-numbered symphony, written as an entry for a competition run by the Bordeaux Société Ste Cécile.

It appears that it won a prize, which surprises me given that Saint-Saëns virtually buried the work in his catalogue. It was unpublished in his lifetime, and it doesn't appear to be a piece the composer was especially proud of. That said, it's his longest symphony, and by no means a bad one. The first movement contains some memorable themes and is wonderfully orchestrated, with some nice, exposed brass sections. A brief and unremarkable scherzo is followed by a not-at-all brief and even less remarkable funereal slow movement. The last movement is very understated and not very finale-like, which means the 40-minute musical journey ends with a rather anti-climactic feel. What all of this has to do with the City of Rome of the title has been lost in time. There's no help from the generic movement titles and no programme was supplied for the work. As with all of his non-organ symphonies, I was unfamiliar with this work, and while I'm glad to have paid it a visit, I doubt I'll be back.

Day 187

6 July 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 5 (1816)
Franz Schubert had written so much music prior to this work that it's hard to believe that he was still only 19 when he wrote this brilliant Mozart-influenced work. It is known from Schubert's diaries that he had been immersing himself in Mozart's work at the time he was writing this symphony and many have observed similarities with Mozart, particularly his Symphony No. 40 in G minor. The instrumentation, for example, is the same.

I remember hearing this on the radio a couple of years ago. I recognised it instantly but assumed it was, in fact, Mozart. On discovering it was Schubert 5, I racked my brains trying to recall how it had become so embedded in my subconscious and concluded that its main theme is simply one of those once-heard-never-forgotten tunes that composers would sell their first-born to write. The other movements are on a par with the first, making this his most consistent symphony, I'd say. Every one is a gem, with tune after tune just gliding through ether. On listening to this today, I put it straight back on again and gave it a second blast. Wonderful.

Day 188

7 July 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 4, 'The Inextinguishable' (1916)
Written one hundred years after the Schubert, featured yesterday, here is a very different symphony from Carl Nielsen. It's one that I love just as much though. Just as exhilarating, but in a different way. In the composer's words, he is attempting to convey 'the elemental will of life', something he may have felt compelled to do, two years into the most devastating war mankind had ever inflicted upon itself.

This is one of those symphonies that grabs you by the scruff of the neck from the very first bar. A quick flurry of notes, and then you're carried along by a relentless falling tritone figure towards a glorious, exultant tune based on a descending major scale. And that is just the first few minutes. That glorioso theme returns at the end of the first movement and seems to embody that inextinguishable life-force while all around is chaos. The final movement sees an actual battle emerge in the orchestra as two timpanists – instructed to be facing each other – compete to drown the other out. The combative percussionist, incidentally, is a theme he would revisit with even more dramatic consequences in his next symphony (look out for that in a couple of months’ time). The fourth symphony is around 30 minutes of some of the most intense symphonic writing ever heard at the time, and it remains one of his most popular and frequently performed works today.

Day 189

8 July 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 5 (1876)
To be honest with you, dear reader, I have something of an ambivalent relationship with Anton Bruckner. I don't doubt his greatness, and there are many days when I can happily luxuriate in music that seems almost heavenly in its conception. There are other times, however, when I've seen one of symphonies looming on the horizon in my pre-determined Symphony A Day listening schedule and there is an unmistakable sinking feeling that I'll be wading through 70–80 minutes of late-Romantic treacle.

I probably wouldn't have chosen to listen to this today, but having said all that, this is a perfectly good symphony that does have some distinguishing features that help it stand out from the crowd. Not least is the unusual fact that three of its four movements open quietly with plucked strings, which gives rise to its unofficial nickname, the 'Pizzicato' symphony. Yes, there were moments when I found myself thinking, 'this bit sounds remarkably similar to his "n"th symphony', and I was totally thrown when the fourth movement began and I thought my iPod had gone into shuffle mode and played the first movement again. Despite its near identical opening, it does, however, take a completely different turn and develop into the most wonderful fugue, ending in a blaze of glory with a brilliant brass finale. I just wonder why, for me, the prospect of Bruckner is often far less appealing than the actual experience.

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